Autism May Be Diagnosed Early by Sense of Smell

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By Anisa Arsenault, Associate Editor
Updated March 2, 2017
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We recently told you that tracking an infant’s eye patterns can help detect autism earlier. But a new study is relying on a different sense for early detection: smell.

A simple sniff test accurately determined whether or not a toddler had autism spectrum disorder (ASD) 81 percent of the time. Researchers noticed that unlike those without ASD, autistic kids didn’t adjust their sniffing patterns when encountering an unpleasant scent. So while people without autism may try and limit the flow of air through their noses in, say, a public bathroom, those with autism don’t make that adjustment.

While kids without autism adjusted sniffing within 305 milliseconds of smelling a foul odor, autistic children didn’t adjust it at all. Study author Noam Sobel of Israel’s Weizmann Institute of Science explains this is indicative of brain templates not coordinating senses with actions.

Researchers recorded he olfactory responses of 18 autistic and 18 other children with an average age of seven. But Noam thinks this test could be effective for children only a few months old.

“We can identify autism and its severity with meaningful accuracy within less than 10 minutes, using a test that is completely non-verbal and entails no task to follow,” Sobel says. “This raises the hope that these findings could form the base for development of a diagnostic tool that can be applied very early on, such as in toddlers only a few months old. Such early diagnosis would allow for more effective intervention.”

Currently, autism typically isn’t diagnosed until ages four or five.

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